Central Place Theory

views updated


Central place theory is a conceptual statement about the relative locations, numbers, and economic functions of the different-sized urban places in a region. Within a framework of several assumptions concerning the character of the region (for example, that it is a uniform physical plain, evenly settled and over which movement is possible in all directions) and the rational economic behavior of both the region's farm population as consumers and of the producers of goods and services in the urban centers, the theory allows for predictions to be made about the hierarchical ordering of the urban places and the spatial patterning of their market areas within the region. The most widely reported of these results is the urban pattern that has the regular hexagonal market areas of the more numerous smaller urban places nested within those of the fewer larger centers, as is shown in Figure 1.

The term "central place" was coined by the geographer Mark Jefferson in 1931 to refer to the fact that, "cities do not grow up of themselves; countrysides set them up to do tasks that must be performed in central places." Jefferson's reference to the functional complementarity that exists between urban places and the surrounding rural regions was not a new idea; indeed, it had been the subject of numerous empirical studies by European geographers and American rural sociologists earlier in the same century. The later emphasis upon theorizing about these urban–rural relations flowed mainly from the work of two German scholars, Walter Christaller (1893–1969) and August Lösch (1906–1945).

In 1933 Christaller, a geographer, published his dissertation on the central places of southern Germany, in which he inductively derived laws about the "size, number and distribution of central places." It was he who first proposed the hypothetical pattern shown in Figure 1. In his schema, each center within a hierarchy of urban places offers a set of economic goods and services for the surrounding farm population. The range of these goods and services–the average distance that people from the rural area will travel to obtain them–defines the extent of the center's tributary or market area. The smaller the settlement, the fewer the functions offered and the smaller its market area. Larger places offer everything that the smaller places do along with some higher order functions. For example, in the smallest hamlet there may be only a gas station and a general store, while in the slightly larger village these same functions may be supplemented by a post office and a bank. The ideal market area of each place would be circular and overlap with those of neighboring places of the same size. The hexagonal set of market areas eliminates these overlapping zones of competition and allows for the market areas of the smaller centers to be nested within those of the larger ones.

The system shown in Figure 1, with six centers located at the vertices of the hexagonal market area of the next larger urban place, conformed to what Christaller called the "marketing principle," and he elaborated upon the variations of this pattern that would result from distortions of the transportation


network and the nature of the administrative districts within the region. A more formal generalization of such a system is found in the work of Lösch, an economist. His book, The Economics of Location, published in German in 1939, presented a deductive schema for the emergence of systems of urban places and market areas within what he called an "economic landscape." In his formulation, the spatial arrangement of urban places and their market areas shown in Figure 1 is but one of a number of possible results.

English translations of these works of Christaller and Lösch first appeared in the 1950s. Geographers, especially in North America, quickly seized upon them as they were seeking to move their discipline in the direction of more quantitative and theoretical work. Those social scientists engaged in the development of the newly emergent field of "regional science" also took an interest. Central place theory subsequently fostered many lines of scholarly activity. On the empirical level, it has provided the framework for numerous studies of urban hierarchies and market area systems in different parts of the world. Those studies of the central United States completed by the geographer Brian Berry and of northern China by the anthropologist G. W. Skinner are among the most widely cited. Berry showed also how the theory could be used to analyze the hierarchy of retail centers within a large metropolitan area such as Chicago. On the theoretical front, many have sought to outline mathematical statements of the theory, to elaborate upon and extend the economic arguments that underpin it, and to demonstrate how it can be integrated with other forms of theoretical spatial analysis. The contributions, among many, of Hendricus Bos, Andrew Krmenec, and Adrian Esparza, Michael Kuby, Gordon Mulligan, and John Parr illustrate these continuing lines of investigation. Central place theory also has provided the underpinnings for regional planning schemes in different countries around the world. Notable among these efforts were those of Swedish geographers who in the 1950s and 1960s helped shape national planning policies for the locations of schools, hospitals, and regional centers. Alan Pred has suggested that "this redrawing of the map of Sweden unquestionably represents the most significant contribution of central place research to that country's planning" (1973).

See also: Cities, Systems of; Density and Distribution of Population; Geography, Population; Lösch, August.


Berry, Brian J. L. 1967. Geography of Market Centers and Retail Distribution. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Bos, Hendricus C. 1965. Spatial Dispersion of Economic Activity. Rotterdam: University Press.

Christaller, Walter. 1966 (1933). Die zentralen Orte in Süddeutschland, trans. Carlisle W. Baskin. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Jefferson, Mark. 1931. "Distribution of the World's City Folks." The Geographical Review 21: 446–465.

King, Leslie J. 1984. Central Place Theory. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Kolb, J. H. 1923. "Service Relations of Town and Country." University of Wisconsin Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin No. 58.

Krmenec, Andrew J., and Adrian Esparza. 1993. "Modeling Interaction in a System of Markets." Geographical Analysis 25(4): 354–368.

Kuby, Michael. 1989. "A Location-Allocation Model of Lösch's Central Place Theory: Testing on a Uniform Lattice Network." Geographical Analysis 21(4): 316–337.

Lösch, August. 1954 (1939). Die räumliche Ordnung der Wirtschaft, trans. W. H. Woglom and W. F. Stolper. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Mulligan, Gordon. 1982. "Tinbergen-type Central Place Systems." International Regional Science Review 7(1): 83–91.

Parr, John B. 1978. "Models of the Central Place System: A More General Approach." Urban Studies 15(1): 35–49.

Pred, Alan R. 1973. "Urbanization, Domestic Planning Problems and Swedish Geographic Research." Progress in Geography 5: 1–76.

Skinner, G. William. 1964–65. "Marketing and Social Structure in Rural China, Parts I and II." Journal of Asian Studies 24: 32–43, 195–228.

Leslie J. King

About this article

Central Place Theory

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article


Central Place Theory